Wednesday, August 01, 2007

humility and pride

I have always felt a strange tension between myself and my classmates.

It began in elementary school. I was a child who loved to learn, who was curious to understand everything and anything I could. I had read all of The Little Midrash Says books and could quote them verbatim- and often did. I didn’t realize that my pride in my knowledge irked my classmates, that the fact that I always had my hand up before the teacher had even finished the question bothered them. Was I showing off? No, that was not what I intended. I was so thrilled by the answer, so excited about what we were learning that I always wanted to share my knowledge, certain that everyone also wanted to learn and wanted to hear the answer. But after a while, when the teacher would inevitably call me aside and inform me that she knew I knew the answer but she wasn’t going to call on me in class anymore because she needed to “give the other girls a chance,” I became sullen. Discontented and bored, I would doodle through class, wishing the teacher would allow me to speak.

I did not think of myself as better for having read The Little Midrash Says and knowing the answers before my classmates could conceive of them. I have never put much store in factual knowledge, and as far as I was concerned, any of my classmates could read The Little Midrash Says and they would have the answers, too! But there was another problem, something that I could not explain away, and that was the fact that I thought differently from my peers. I didn’t know what it was but there was a distinct difference; we were not interested in the same things, did not, at times, seem to be speaking the same language.

I felt very bad about this and tried very hard to reach out to my classmates and to form friendships with them. But the price of these friendships was often too high. Once, I was invited to join the most popular clique in the school. I was invited to join because of my ability to tell stories. I ditched my other friends, the other outcasts who attached themselves to me, and spent recess with the popular group, weaving them a story. When it came time to go in for mincha, I was horrified to find that they actually had a guard who stood behind us and warded off anyone who tried to follow us or join us with a big stick, actually waving it about and making threatening gestures. As a child who had a very keen sense of right and wrong, this seemed to me to be utterly unjust. I could not associate with this group…

It had been easier when we were younger, when people were still willing to imagine. I had three friends and spent every recess with them. I was almost always the leader in these games of make-believe; I assigned the roles. “You’re going to be the Wicked Stepmother,” I would inform one girl, “and you’re going to be the poor girl looking for berries, and I’m going to be the Queen!” We would play and laugh and run around the green fields and I was happy. But when they grew older we were separated into different classes and grew distant or they wouldn’t engage in such childish activities as make-believe and I was left to myself.

I have always been able to entertain myself, and these recesses proved no different. I would swing and think or sing aloud; I would play my imaginative games and pretend that I was Belle. I cannot count the number of times I must have run about singing, “I want much more than this provincial life” and twirling, only to sink down upon the grass and wish there was a Phillipe to come for me. There was a little tree that I decided was my tree and I would often talk to it and ask it how it was doing, thinking I would make it grow by loving it.

But I felt apart and I knew I was apart and I further knew that it was my fault. And it seemed to me that I had two choices.

Either I could accept that everyone else was much better than me and for reasons I could not understand, I was a failure. I was a failure for being unable to relate to the shallow and pathetic nature of the gossip that ruled our fifth-grade lives, for loving learning instead of hating school, for not being able to run fast enough or hit a baseball far enough afield, for enjoying homework and honestly liking class.

Or I could make myself feel better and tell myself that I was different. I was different and in fact I was higher and maybe even better because I knew more and I thought differently and the things that I cared about mattered more. Because I cared about ideas, as I have always cared about ideas, and I cared about the way they were expressed in books, about the characters who lived their lives in accordance with them.

And as you can guess, I chose the second, because who wants to think of oneself as abnormal, a failure, a freak and an outcast? Far better to think of oneself as above the others, for then one needn’t feel the pain of rejection. No, now you are in control. You can reject them; you don’t need them.

And this is probably when I first began to be the arrogant, haughty and prideful person that I am today.

Despite my resolve that I didn’t need my classmates and I didn’t care whether they accepted me, that in fact I was much smarter and much better than them, I still didn’t like to make them feel bad. I wasn’t ever the kind of person who would pretend not to be good at something so that someone else could feel better; I never downplayed my strengths but I did exaggerate my flaws. I was secretly thrilled whenever I failed something because I hadn’t studied for it; I would dance about happily and inform all my classmates that I’d gotten a 32 on the math homework or a 60 on the pop quiz. I was as proud of this as other people would have been of perfect grades.

Because secretly I hoped that if I told everyone that I got bad grades, too, and that I wasn’t infallible, they would like me better.

Sometimes it even worked. Sometimes people were much nicer to me after I told them I had failed something. It got to the point where I even considered lying to people about my grades to get them to like me, but I did not resort to that because I do not like lies. But there was such pleasure in being accepted and in being seen as a normal kid, in having people take you in as a member of the group that I remember thinking about how much I wanted to sabotage myself and perform poorly deliberately.

To this day, my father insists that my problem with math is entirely a mental block I created for myself and it is possible that that is true. I felt like it wouldn’t be fair to be good at two disciplines, so whenever I received a compliment or an admiring glance I would shrug it off and say, “Oh, I’m good at English, but I’m terrible at Math.” I would then continue on to tell the person all about how I was awful at math because I felt that would put us on a more even footing, that people wouldn’t look at me like some kind of frightening demigod.

There are several kinds of pride. There is irrational pride, where you are proud for absolutely no reason. You weren’t the one who created a project or put together an object; whatever skills you have are completely natural and you didn’t have to put any effort into being a certain way, you simply are. In this case, what do you have to be proud of? It’s a completely irrational pride.

But there is a different kind of pride, and this was the one I felt, where yes, I had been born with certain talents but it was my hard work that led me to develop them and to produce the results I had. And in that case I was proud of myself, and rightly so. I earned my right to be proud.

The problem was that I so desperately wanted a challenge. I wanted someone to emulate, someone to model myself after, someone to look up to, someone who I felt was on my level (yes, these were the terms I thought in, because recall that I had chosen to be arrogant) and most of all, someone who would understand me. And I chose this person after seeing her cry during reciting Tehillim because I was awed by that. This was a girl who felt the recital of Tehillim so much that she actually cried. I idealized her and set her up as my role model. She was officially a tzaddekes now and I was going to learn from her.

I “let her find” a note where I had written how much I wanted to be like her and model myself after her. I had planted it deliberately, of course, but this began a correspondence between the two of us; we would place letters in each others’ lockers and became, for a time, best friends. You will be surprised to note that she completely subscribed to the Agudah philosophy and was very Chareidi. That was the subject of much debate in our letters; she had vehement opinions about non-Jews and my opinions were just as strong, but the opposite of hers. We were well matched because we were both excellent at Judaic studies and for this reason, although I did not know it then, she respected me, too.

But slowly my idealized opinion of her fell apart; there were cracks in the veneer as I realized that she was not who I had thought she was. One of our fiercest arguments was about cheating. She had proudly admitted to cheating during a test. I was shocked. I did not cheat. I did not lie. How could she possibly consider herself to be a good Jew, someone following the precepts of the Torah, and yet cheat? How could she care more about whether my sleeves were rolled up past my elbows because it was hot outside; how could this be so important to her and yet she could cheat on a test?

We had a fight in which she informed me that if “the cheating is really obvious and the teacher doesn’t notice it, it’s her fault.” I couldn’t understand her reasoning and what I saw as her dishonesty and slowly, slowly I couldn’t respect her as much anymore…

Then she received an important award and I really couldn’t live with myself because I was bitterly jealous. Why had she, not only a cheater but someone who was proud of cheating, been rewarded with this award, and I had been passed over? But I steeled myself and pretended I did not care and went up to her and lied by wishing her a mazal tov.

And so my arrogance and pride reasserted itself, for the person I had taken as my role model, the person I had wanted to emulate and model myself after did not exist, for she was not who I had thought she was. We did not share the same values or the same views and I was left to myself, again, and comforted myself by saying that I was the better one even if she was the one with the prize.

You know of my experiences in high school. That was yet another place where I was not challenged and had no one to truly put me in my place, where indeed I knew enough to challenge the teachers and cause them to tell me to shut up lest everyone discover how little they actually knew. And so my arrogance grew because I had again gone unchallenged, and though of course I had friends, other bright people who hated the system, I still felt that I was the strongest, because I was the one who had the ability to put myself on the line and did, far more than they knew. There were times when they did not defend me but I did defend them and this made me feel superior even though my intent was good; I felt like I had a kind of courage that they did not. I realize now that it was not so much courage as natural ability; I am naturally rash, impulsive, spontaneous, reckless and gutsy; more importantly, my parents supported me in my efforts while theirs did not. This is nothing to be proud of though there were times when my defiance was necessary I am certain that had I been less confrontational, I could have accomplished more. But that would have taken a maturity I did not yet possess…

Then came the switch to North Shore and this, if anything, boosted my ego, because how many other kids could pull off that switch? How many other people can stroll into a school that’s entirely different from their former environment, walk into the second trimester after having missed all the material of the first section and then succeed? I did not know of anyone else who could have done that and I was proud of myself for having managed it. I was further proud because I managed to win the respect of my classmates; if I was not liked then at least I was respected. This is because of how well I performed in English…

I met my match in the form of Alita, but even then it was not a complete match. Alita is far more diligent than I; she studies extremely hard and devoted her time and her life to pursuing one goal: her dream of getting into an Ivy League college. I watched her and felt helpless because everything she touched turned to gold; for her, hard work was the key to every door. There was only one way in which I still remained her equal if not her better and that was in English, because Alita, even Alita, would come to me for help on that. And I would outperform her…and so my arrogance was not threatened or truly tested because I could always fall back on the fact that I had at least one subject in which I was still master.

Alita sees people as failing if they admit they have limitations; I do not agree with her. She once discussed another of our friends with me in a disapproving fashion; she was displeased that our friend had moved out of Pre-Calculus and down to Algebra 2. For Alita, such a switch is an impossibility but I can well understand it, because I do not think that everyone must be good at everything and it is possible for someone to exert all the effort in the world in an attempt to understand something and still fail. Of course, I do not know this from personal experience because I cannot say I ever exerted my full effort in an attempt to understand math, and the one time I did I suddenly scored As and A+s, as my father enjoys reminding me.

Alita and I both went to check out the University of Chicago; we sat in on Professor Bevington’s English class. I did not know who he was and even if I had I am not the kind of person to be daunted by stature and so I was thrilled by the discussion and by how knowledgeable the students were; my eyes were on fire. I literally fed off of the ideas they presented and wished so desperately I had a text in front of me. They were studying Dr. Faustus. Simply by listening I was able to determine something, and being the kind of person to jump into a conversation, I raised my hand and Professor Bevington called on me. I advanced my idea and he praised it; I recall that Alita was gaping afterwards and informed me of who this man was; I was rather pleased he had enjoyed my thought and even more pleased that she admired me for my daring.

But what pleased me most were the students in the class. You see, I finally felt at home; everyone in that class deserved to be there; everyone there was a passionate, dedicated person with a love of English who was interested in the material and in learning. I felt like we were all equals and I felt like I was finally going to be challenged, to take pleasure in my learning the way I had always wanted, and it was that joy and understanding that kept me on a high for the rest of the day. That one class had been utterly brilliant; imagine going there for the full school year. There would be no need to see oneself as above others or as arrogant in any way because we would finally be equals; certainly some would know more than me but I would also have ideas they wouldn’t have and we would give and take and fight over the text and it would be pleasure beyond imagining and I would be happy.

But I chose to go to Yeshiva University for the Judaic Studies and I have been well pleased here. It is not, however, the same, and I do not think that is a critique of the university so much as a comment on the core curriculum. You see, students are mandated to take certain classes, whether or not they enjoy them, and because one adds in the religious element and the varying degrees of knowledge even within the Advanced classes, it is difficult to allow for prolonged intellectual debate and discussion. I loved Rabbi Mordechai Cohen’s class but even there people were wary of dealing with the Documentary Hypothesis, even though he was only presenting it as a preface to Rabbi Breur’s ideas, and it is that fear of knowledge that I have always hated, because I am the antithesis of that and would prefer to know, even if it bothers me, even if it hurts or confuses or otherwise bewilders me. And there are times when I so want to discuss topics in class but realize that only a handful of people are going to have any idea what I am on about, so sometimes I shelve my ideas and take them up with the professor later but sometimes I go for them because you see, I am so sick of hearing “for the good of the class.”

“For the good of the class, Chana, I’m not going to call on you…”
“For the good of the class, Chana, I’d like you to ask your questions later…”
“Chana, you don’t understand, your class isn’t as interested as you are in this subject…”
“For the good of the class, Chana, we need to move on now…”

I can’t have it both ways but at the same time that I somehow feel myself to be better and am arrogant, I also feel like I am just the same as my classmates and all of us want to learn and all of us could benefit from learning the truth. I think that this is a lie I have invented for myself in order to try to keep me humble; what I’ve done is say that if I believe that what I do is correct and works for me, then rather than looking down on inferiors, I will pull up all my classmates and place them alongside me. Now that I’ve determined they are all my equals, I should be allowed to ask my questions…for the good of the class.

Because you see, I cannot find a way to simultaneously see my desire for knowledge as being right and yet remain able to see my classmates as my equals. I don’t want to look down on people and I am angry with myself for doing it; I realize that I am haughty, arrogant and prideful but I don’t know how to humble myself and I wish I could find a way that worked. It is a lie, however, to simply dismiss how I feel and say that we are all equals because we often do not connect; again, we are not speaking the same language. So how can I respect all people, even those who seem completely unable to think, and simultaneously respect myself and the values and ideals I believe in? How do I do this, I have been wondering…

And because of this I have asked those people who I respect and heard their answers and will now offer you some of their ideas.

My friend first differentiated between two types of arrogance. There is arrogance “born out of supreme self confidence” and arrogance “as a mask for poor self esteem.” The latter is the one that I would refer to as “a superiority complex to mask one’s inferiority complex.” Unfortunately, the arrogance I possess is the former, the one born out of supreme self confidence.

So how to get beyond oneself? How to humble oneself?

My friend answered me as follows:

    1. Why would I judge myself against other people? By looking down on someone you are implicitly saying that in a comparison between the two that you are better. I am asking why make that comparison to begin with. You should be judged against yourself (insert classic chasidic story here).
    2. You know your own shortcomings, even if nobody else does. You know your own flaws and what you need to work on.

    3. Recognizing when other people are better then me at something prevents me from ever (hopefully) looking down on other people. (In this case, he’s stating that if you must compare yourself to other people, then recognize what they do better than you and learn from this. Focus on what you are lacking, not on what you have to lord over them.)
Of the three, it’s the R’ Zusia approach of being judged against one’s own potential that I can most relate to, though I do practice the others to a lesser extent. I often intellectually understand that there is something to be learned from everyone but I become so frustrated with their views or opinions that I can’t think outside of what my opinion is on this, my view and that limits me.

On a different occasion, the same friend informed me that one day I will grow into “useful humility.” When I asked how exactly this would be accomplished, he offered his theory.

“You need to run into a brick wall. Then you need to have someone smack you upside the head, followed by running into the brick wall again until you realize it’s not a mirage but actually there. And then when you get over the fact that the wall hurts, you look around and realize that there are more important things to do than keep running and go back and cultivate what you’ve got.”

When I argued that humility doesn’t necessarily come from failure, from being outshone by someone else or being humiliated, he answered, “Humility doesn’t come from humiliation, but can come from recognizing you can’t dominate everyone else all the time.”

I am willing to admit that that is a truth.

Another friend of mine, Rafi, said the same thing in different words: “I think humility can come from within or without. When it comes from without, that's probably better in some ways because it probably means you were put in your place. It hurts more, but it's more valuable in the long run perhaps. Or, it can come from within just by knowing and understanding that a talent, as much as it is to your own credit, is also a gift.”

The latter is the approach my father took with me and the one that I feel helps me the most. He was telling over a dvar Torah he had heard that went as follows:

We learn that Moshe was the humblest of all men, “anav m’kol adam.” But what does it mean, that Moshe was humble? He was certainly not self-effacing; he paints a bold and strong picture throughout the forty years in the desert. He was an extremely talented, adept and able man, a man who was given a task and had to complete it. Do you think that Moshe did not know his talents; is that what humility means? Is humility saying that no, I don’t actually possess these skills and these talents when in truth you do? No! What was it that Moshe thought to himself; what was his definition of humility? Moshe knew that he was the best in certain areas. There was no question of failure; God himself professes that Moses is the greatest prophet and that no prophet will ever arise who can match him. So Moses could not possibly have kept himself humble by thinking that in the future, another would come along who would outdo him (leaving aside for the moment the Rabbi Akiva story, which is related but tangential.)

Here is what Moses thought to himself: If someone else had been given the talents, opportunities and abilities that I have been given, then they too would succeeded at this task and in this position.

Do you see the brilliance in this? I find it quite brilliant. Moses has removed his talents and abilities from revolving around him, about who he is as a person. He sees himself as a vessel. It happens to be that he had a particular background that prepared him for leadership (having been raised in the palace), particular skills and qualities that were granted him. But if someone else had been granted all those skills and opportunities, would they not also have done as well if not better? If they had been the proper vessel rather than him, would they not too have succeeded?

And I was thinking about that in relation to me. If someone else had my parents, my background, my opportunities, was raised in the environment I was raised in, wouldn’t she do just as well if not better? Of course she would. So this means that I am judging people on an unequal basis; I am judging everyone based on what I had and what they were not necessarily given.

Because, and this is something my friend has been telling me for the longest time, people are to a large extent products of their environments. It is not fair and it is not right to judge oneself against people who had an entirely different background, upbringing, religious ideology, who had different opportunities and different family lives. If they had had my life, who knows the limits of what they could have accomplished by now, possibly far more than I have!

It’s a very beautiful idea but it’s hard to keep at the forefront of my mind at the heat of the moment, so I will offer one last suggestion.

I have found that there is an effective way to humble myself, something that always works and never fails.

And that is to look at the suffering of others.

I do not believe that suffering is an ultimate goal but I do believe that suffering is a prerequisite to understanding. I do not wish unhappiness upon anyone and I do not ask God to place difficulties in my path. I do, however, acknowledge that those who have suffered have a unique perspective that is utterly different from my own, completely different and to my mind, on a much higher level.

I look at people who have suffered, whether because I have met them in real life or because I have read of them and their struggles in the books that are so precious to me, and I am humbled.

I am humbled because of what they went through and because of the people they are today, the fact that they were able to carry on and to continue living, to accept a fate that I know I would have hated and would have fought against. Anyone who has suffered and who dreams of a better world, anyone who has been through hell and yet remains passionate; these are people who I look upon in awe, people who I see as being holy.

There is a reason, you see, that I write about Clemantine, Anonymous, the golden-haired girl, Chaya Mitchell and those like them…these are the people who remind me of how low I am in comparison to them, who bring home to me the vast difference between who I am as a person and who they are as people.

For in truth? What have I suffered? I have my health, I have my intelligence, I have my friends, I have my family, I have enough money and enough to eat. What have I to complain about? Absolutely nothing.

And if there is anything that shatters my pride, it is books, books like All Quiet on the Western Front that depict the lives of people my age who went to war and were completely broken, books about the Holocaust, books about any kind of true suffering. Because what I see in those books is another self, a person who is transformed into a killing shell and who forbids himself to feel because that is the only way he can live with himself, a little girl shivering and begging for her mother. I see exactly who I could be in another life and I further see exactly what was for these people, and I am humbled, I am humbled, I am humbled…

And that is why, as those of you who know me well realize, I often try to find out about who you are as people and what it is that moves and affects you and what your experiences have been, because I have yet to meet the person who hasn’t suffered to some degree and whose suffering I cannot respect. And so, if I cannot love you for your opinions and if I see myself as superior due to intelligence, if my arrogance and pride threaten to choke me, if I am so wound up in being condescending and patronizing that I do not even realize you are speaking, there is one thing that will stop me and recall me to myself and that is my ability to understand another’s suffering and to accept it as true.

And to suddenly see you as a person in light of that, and then to try to know you better, because I have been profoundly shocked by that knowledge and realize that above all else you and I are human and we share the same loves and pains and that is what connects me to you even if there is nothing else that can.

I am sorry if I’ve hurt you in my arrogance and pride and I hope that you forgive me.
I hope that one day I will know how to be humble.


Anonymous said...

You're funny.

-favorite post yet.

e-kvetcher said...

>You're funny.


Tobie said...

I myself have an awful ego. I pretend not to by being humorously self-deprecating, but it is a poor facade at best. The thing that tends to balance me out is that every so often I realize that since I am, thank G-d, quite smart, I probably should be doing something majorly important with my life- that if I live a decent, mediocre, satisfactory life I am going to be a bit of a failure. That all around there are all sorts of people with probably a lot less going for them who managed to change the world and that I am most likely going to live and die an unremarkable existence simply due to my own lack of drive. And then I get so royally freaked out that I am forced to downplay my abilities to myself to justify my mediocrity and boom! The ego is replaced by crushing self-doubt, with the proportions re-adjusting themselves in a neat sine graph that is life.

Anonymous said...

“It is not, however, the same, and I do not think that is a critique of the university so much as a comment on the core curriculum. You see, students are mandated to take certain classes, whether or not they enjoy them...”

Ha. Lets be honest. The reason its “not the same” is because YU essentially has open admissions, so it is really nothing more than an extension of yeshiva highschool. You have some smart kids, but most are just “ok”. The students at chicago are on an entirely different level.

Maybe you wrote this in your post (it was very long so I may have missed it), but perhaps the real reason you chose YU was because you knew you would stand out among mostly mediocre students, much like you did in highschool. In chicago, it would be a different story, and its possible you would end up in the middle of the pack, or even worse. Either way, one of the tell tale signs that someone regrets their decision in choosing a college is if they feel the need to constantly remind people that they were accepted to the other college.

Anonymous said...

I'm proud of you.


Chana said...

Anonymous 6:32,

I believe you are confusing the two types of arrogance. There is arrogance “born out of supreme self confidence” and arrogance “as a mask for poor self esteem.” If mine were the latter, your point would indeed be correct. I would be so insecure that I would choose the college that would supposedly make me look better.

However, as someone whose arrogance emanates from "supreme self confidence," I can assure you that I harbor no such insecurities; indeed, that is the problem! It is my firm belief that I would stand out and shine no matter where I went to school, so strongly do I believe in myself. Hence there is no question in my mind that I would have stood out at UChicago, should I have wished it.

I should also correct you; the students at my second high school were hardly mediocre. The ones at my first were excellent in all their Judaic studies, with some performing beautifully in their secular studies as well, depending on how well they could supplement them.

Anonymous said...

"It is my firm belief that I would stand out and shine no matter where I went to school, so strongly do I believe in myself."

But wouldnt a girl like you want to be seriously challenged?

As good as any highschool can be, almost all students who go on to top colleges easily aced highschool and all their AP exams. After all, highschool is geared towards avg teenagers. Anyone intelligent and serious can excel without much trouble.

Now youre in YU, a school, for better or worse, with no admission standards, and with student quality significantly below that of top colleges.

You will graduate from college without ever really testing your true mettle or challenging yourself. Even if youre 100% confident that you would excel at schools like princeton or mit, wouldnt you want to actually experience this?

I understand why you chose YU, but at the same time i dont. Youre essentially a star minor league baseball player who has been called to the pros, but decides for personal reasons to stay put. You assume you will perform well in the pros, but you will never know for sure, and more importantly, never have the experience.

For many smart people who see college as just a means to an end, it may not be worthwhile to go to a more serious college. Based on this blog, I gather that you wouldn’t fall into this category.

Chana said...

Anonymous 8:45,

What's all this about never knowing for sure? What happened to graduate school?

Incidentally, YU is a lot better than you seem to think. The caliber of its students can be quite high. You are correct that it allows for open admissions rather than cracking down on selectivity, but that just makes it all the more fun when one searches out and succeeds in finding their people.

Out of curiosity, where do you get your information on YU? Have you actually attended? Were you a student? Or is all this based on hearsay? Because you are not quite correct in your assumptions.

MAK said...

Wow. You are an amazing writer, I am in awe. Actually, since you're so good, can I ask you to take a look at a story I'm writing? It'd help. Also, thank you for commenting on my blog! It's very encouraging! And, I think one of the first steps to humility is realizing that you have to work on it in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I could really understand the first part of what you wrote. I too loved learning (still do), and as a child I was always eager to share my knowledge. I don’t think there was any pride in it. I assumed that other people would be interested. In particular, I had a love of words, and would often use ‘big’ words that I assumed other people would understand. Unfortunately, they often did not, and assumed I was showing off or trying to catch them out – even adults would call me an “intellectual elitist”.

The effect on me was rather different to you, though. I became very shy and introverted and lacking in self-esteem. I was unwilling to offer an opinion on anything. I suppose I was lucky that I was never the absolutely cleverest person at school. I had a couple of friends who were also very clever, and even better than me in some subjects. This was both good in and of itself, and also probably prevented me becoming proud.

As for pride itself, I too have heard the R’ Zusia story and that idea about Moshe. I find them both useful guides to the difference between useful self-knowledge and pride on the one hand, and lack of self-esteem on the other.

You say “how can I respect all people, even those who seem completely unable to think, and simultaneously respect myself and the values and ideals I believe in?” It can be very difficult. I try to keep two thoughts in mind.

First, I do not think that the purely intellectual approach is the only way to understand the world. It is the only approach that really works for me, true, but I think other people understand the world in different ways, which are complementary rather than contradictory. I don’t think that is showing a lack of respect to my own values and ideas; rather it just shows an awareness of their limitations. Also, I can not expect other people to respect my values if I do not respect theirs.

Second, I have to keep in mind that, yes, this person may be very different to me, but still, he or she is made in the image of God, has a life of his or her own with its own integrity and purpose, even if it is different to mine. I suppose that’s the R’ Zusia story reversed, applied outwards to other people.

Anonymous said...

Different anon here.

I felt compelled to comment after reading your last comment.
Are you seriously arguing about the student quality at YU? This is no secret, nor does one even have to attend YU to notice the rather large gap between YU and ivy students. I’m pretty certain that this is undisputed. Colleges release a good amount of statistics on their incoming class ever year. Median SAT, percent of incoming class who finished in the top 10% of their highschool class, highschool GPA, acceptance rate, as well as other statistics. YUs numbers clearly demonstrate that YU students are on par with most colleges which are considered to be “third-tier.” The majority of the student body at YU did average in highschool and didn’t perform to well on the SATs. Additionally, if “soft factors” are your thing YU students typically have much less impressive experiences and extracurricular activities than students in ivy caliber colleges.

You may personally think the student quality at YU is impressive, but keep in mind that i) this is completely contradicted by every type of existing evidence and ii) students at community colleges also argue how great the student quality is in their school, much like you completely ignoring all the evidence.

I take no issue with the fact that you enjoy YU and are learning a lot, but lets no pretend YU students are close in quality to ivy students. A few will be (much like most colleges), the vast majority wont be anywhere close.

Chana said...

Anonymous 8:37,

No, I wasn't arguing; I only said that the quality can be pretty high. Note the word can.

I see no reason to compare YU to various Ivies; they fulfill different needs for different people. The question simply becomes; what kind of people does each institution produce? And who are we aiming for?

There is great good in being a shining intellectual who advances the world, having graduated with many honors from an Ivy League school; there is also great good in being a simple person who helps out in his own way, for which one does not need an Ivy education or even any official form of higher education at all (much as I don't like that idea.)

I dislike judging people based on brand names. Quality people produce quality results; they forge connections because they desire it, though of course you are correct that larger schools/Ivies offer a different range of opportunities.

One more thing: the assumption that those who attend Ivies are all quite intensely smart is also incorrect. There are obviously Wallets, too.

Or as the UChicago t-shirt reads:

"If I'd wanted an A, I'd have gone to Harvard."

Anonymous said...

"No, I wasn't arguing; I only said that the quality can be pretty high. Note the word can."

This is true of all crappy colleges. A few smart students sorrounded by medicore students.

"One more thing: the assumption that those who attend Ivies are all quite intensely smart is also incorrect. There are obviously Wallets, too."

The part about wallets is flat out incorrect. The ivy league colleges are no more expensive than crappy private colleges, and most of those who attend ivys take on some loans and grants. The average family income of YU students is definitely higher that of ivy students.

"Or as the UChicago t-shirt reads:

"If I'd wanted an A, I'd have gone to Harvard." "

Im not sure the relevance of this quote. This is besides the point but Harvard does not lose any cross-admits to Chicago, other than when students get scholarships, so its very doubtful that anyone in the class at chicago actually had that choice.

Chana said...

Anonymous 11:41,

As all your assertions are based upon your personal opinion, I don't see that we have much more to discuss. Suffice it to say that I am aware of several people who turned down Harvard to attend *name college that is supposedly less prestigious* including YU, UChicago and so on. But as I find the one-upping nature of this discussion rather silly, I think we ought to end off now.

Erachet said...

I know you said you wanted to end this YU discussion, but I'd like to point something out about YU that is incredibly vital and has not been mentioned.

Generally, people choose to go to YU for incredibly different reasons than they choose to go anywhere else, be it a community college or an IV league school. For the most part, people do not choose YU for academic reasons. They choose it because it is a Jewish, religious institution. I know plenty of people who could have or did get into IV league schools and opted to attend YU instead. This is extremely important to understand before anyone goes comparing YU to other schools.

Secondly, because of my first point, YU has a large mix of students. There are the mediocre ones, definitely, but there are also plenty of extremely bright students who could very well have gone to IV leagues and picked YU over them. There is wide range of capabilities when it comes to YU students.

Thirdly, no one said there aren't challenging classes in YU, so I don't see why one cannot be challenged there. There are some very excellent professors and some quite challenging classes offered at pretty high levels. You just have to choose those classes and you will have a very rewarding, challenging experience.

It is unfair to compare YU to other schools, however, based on my first point. The ideology of YU is Torah U'madda (Torah and knowledge), not just madda (knowledge). It is that emphasis on Torah that makes it a unique school and quite uncomparable in a fair way to other schools which concentrate only on academics. Of COURSE YU will have easier acceptance policies. Why should only the top students get such a college experience?

rivkayael said...

Hi Chana, firstly, thanks for commenting on my blog (which is really just a kvetchfest...).

Secondly, (yes, in spite of your wanting to end the whole YU discussion) I agree and identify with you in a lot of ways in choosing YU over x, y and z. I've had the privilege of interacting with some of the best from the ivies in both science and judaic studies--can't say anything about YU's bio program, but I can say that the amount of intellectual engagement I have had at YU is clearly on par with (or surpasses) any. Like you, I've also turned down scholarships from the ivies in favour of what another program had to offer. In the end, it's all about *your* learning, what *you* want to gain, and who *you* want to be. No sense in attempting to fit into the expectations of what people want you to learn, since you'll never please anyone anyway...

And yes, there is always graduate school. Honing your gemara skills while you are an undergrad will stand you in good stead when you are up and alone at odd hours having nobody to learn with... hard to find the time to do that in grad school. I was trying to explain to an incoming first year grad (a graduate from Stern's gemara program) in Chemistry how much learning you can fit in (yes, while studying for comps) when your text skills are already there, and how much it helps you maintain your sanity. So kudos on your choice.

rivkayael said...

as an addenum: it is actually HARDER to get into Revel than other Judaic studies grad programs. Revel requires Hebrew reading proficiency--most others don't (UChicago, JTS, NYU) for entry into MA. This leads to teachers being able to jump straight into primary sources from day 1 because they assume reading fluency.

secondly, they really do believe in Torah U'Maddah. I think Revel may have been the only place where 3 professors enthusiastically cited my biochemistry background (yes, even after me pleading that I was going to have so many problems because of my lack of Hebrew) as a reason for why I might succeed in Judaic studies, and joked about becoming Rav Tendler/Rambam. They support such aspirations because those people are so alive in the tradition and in Revel, the tradition is alive.

Anonymous said...

“As all your assertions are based upon your personal opinion, I don't see that we have much more to discuss.”

Now your being dishonest. All YOUR assertions are based on opinion. SAT scores, acceptance rates, highschool grades and cross admit statistics are not "opinion" (btw, harvard beats chicago about +-95% to 5% in the cross admit battle, and most of those five percent received grants and scholarships). You can choose to ignore the numbers and statistics but this does not make them “opinions.”

Erachet said...

For your information, by the way, YU does not have complete open acceptance. There ARE people who don't get in.

Chana said...

Anonymous 1:48,

Bandying about terms, even grand terms, does not a cogent argument make.

The words "SAT scores, acceptance rates, highschool grades and cross admit statistics" mean very little without a source verifying these numbers.

That is the "opinion" of which I spoke.

What it comes down to is our differing views. You seem to be very impressed by numbers, whereas I am more impressed by the quality of one's character. You seem to feel that if YU is not ahead in the numbers game (be it selectivity, SAT scores or the like) it must therefore be a poor institution. I differ, because there is no quantitative way of measuring kindness, intelligence, goodness or truth. I am not quite sure what the purpose of your argument is. To prove that in the numbers game YU does not come out ahead? Fine, I'll accept that. To prove to me that I should have gone to UChicago? I beg to differ, and seeing as it is my life, I think my vote tops yours. What is it exactly that you are attempting to demonstrate here?

Rebecca said...

Chana, I don't think you're as "arrogant" as you say you are because aside from what you've written, you know how to find the goodness in others (proof is that e-mail you wrote me :-)). Even without the suffering aspect.

What amazes me, though, is how honest you are about this. Because a truly arrogant person would never admit he has a fault. Yasher koach on removing yourself from this category, then. :-)

Anonymous said...

"I cannot find a way to simultaneously see my desire for knowledge as being right and yet remain able to see my classmates as my can I respect all people, even those who seem completely unable to think, and simultaneously respect myself and the values and ideals I believe in?"

It is difficult to grow and develop as a person when, from a young age, you feel you are "different". It's hard for any "different" child -- whether those differences come from lesser abilities or (as in your case) greater abilities. As a result, you became defensive -- defending your right to be different, your right to love ideas and thoughts, your right to pursue the truth. But it also made you socially isolated and made it difficult for you to find your place in the world outside of yourself.

Now that you are getting older, you might start by seeing and accepting people for who they are -- without judgement -- rather than characterizing them as a lesser (or greater) reflection of YOUR values. When we are children, we are at the center -- it's critical for our development. But as we grow up, it's healthy to see ourselves as part of a greater project -- a piece of a whole. We contribute in whatever ways we can -- and we hope that our contributions will improve the world, improve the lives of others, allowing us to feel happy and productive. Humility comes from an understanding that we are just a small role of a much much bigger theatrical production -- and that our role is a privilege, a gift. Not everyone was put on this earth to be a "great thinker" or to live in the world of Great Thoughts. And when you are deeeep in that world (I know from experience, I chose the U. of Chicago, HAHA) you forget the beauty of other aspects of life and become obsessed with knowledge, ideas, etc.

Your entire post is about your academic successes (with some social situations -- more or less successful at various moments in your life) thrown in for good measure -- because academic success is how you define yourself. When you allow yourself to live as a whole person -- and to acknowledge others that way as well -- you will see that there are strengths and weaknesses in all of us.

As for your frustrations with "the good of the class" -- it seems like this is truly not the right environment for you. While your questions and comments are no doubt interesting and insightful -- imagine how frustrating and painful it is for students who do not grasp things so easily. How easily it is for them to become discouraged, then bored, then hopeless because they just don't get it -- while you fly past them at lightning speed. If you feel that YU IS the place for you, then consider possibly that your role in this particular theater is not solely your own academic growth and success, but enabling and enhancing the academic growth and success of others. How would the classroom work? Could you do that without judging in a negative way? Are there things that you might learn from those whose academic gifts are lesser than yours, but whose lives might be rich in other ways?

This was a powerful post -- honest, passionate, from the heart. There is much more to say -- not a simple topic... but I admire your willingness to speak so openly and to solicit the thoughts of others on this topic.

Apologies for taking up so much space ;-)

Anonymous said...

"What is it exactly that you are attempting to demonstrate here?"

In your initial post you gave some reason as to why the academic atmosphere was different in YU compared to Chicago. I responded that the primary reason for the difference in the academic environment is that YU is filled with mostly stupid kids while Chicago has mostly intelligent students. Yes, perhaps YU has the most kind students in the universe. I have no problem conceding that. And anyway, why are you getting so defensive? Am I not allowed to disagree with your post?

“The words "SAT scores, acceptance rates, highschool grades and cross admit statistics" mean very little without a source verifying these numbers.”

Are you seriously questioning that there is a large SAT gap between YU and top ranked colleges? I assumed you did this type of research before you chose a college.

“I differ, because there is no quantitative way of measuring. . .intelligence. . .”

Um, clinical psychologists and neuroscientists beg to differ. Some dont believe its perfect, but thats a different story.

Chana said...

Anonymous 6:22,

You're allowed to disagree, but I do prefer people to disagree intelligently rather than availing themselves of generalizations unbacked by any form of concrete evidence.

All right, you've made your point. I hear it. Good!

Chana said...


Thanks very much, but you do have a penchant for seeing me as kinder than I am. I appreciate it. :-)

Anonymous 5:00,

Ah, a UChicago student? Really? Then I shall feel honored. Moving forward to your comment- which is much appreciated- I agree with all your sentiments. I should clarify that I don't often hear the words "for the good of the class" at YU; I heard them at other schools far more frequently and sometimes here.

Interesting how you point out that I define myself by academic success. I think I want to differ slightly; it's really not the grades that are important so much as the ideas, as I think you would agree. I wouldn't like to fail out of school, but I don't think the two are necessarily related. I know people who perform poorly in school and yet are able to think; they are simply not good test-takers, for instance. I admire people who are able to analyze and/or suggest ideas and thoughts of their own, different ways of seeing things; it really wouldn't matter how well or how poorly that person performed on a test.

Interesting that you suggest I have a different role to play depending upon the point in time/ in this particular theater. That echoes another comment by my friend Rafi, who suggested that the difference between arrogance and self-confidence depends upon the time one's talent is demonstrated.

"But, this of course, doesn't run true always. If I play in Battle of the Bands let's say, yes I may get an ego boost from it, but im in a time and place where displaying a talent is acceptable and no one would think I was doing anything inappropriate. So much of it is also about presentation. Not that this is inherently wrong for the venue, but had I been jumping around on stage and playing behind my back or whatever other stage stunts people do, it may have come off differently. I'm not sure I'm answering anything, this is mostly just me talking about my thoughts. It may just be about having a good sense of what's socially acceptable. You can't really teach that so much, it's more just having a feel. Obviously we aren't talking about a guy who is clearly being arrogant, because such situations exist. I'm talking more about that grey area. I think it's about knowing the crowd."

That makes a lot of sense to me. So perhaps sometimes, even in class, it is not the appropriate time to demonstrate a particular talent. I'll have to think on it.

There is a quote I once read; the gist of which states "When I was younger, I appreciated intelligence; now that I am older I am learning the value of kindness."

You are absolutely correct that it is important to see each person for what you can learn from him, whether it be in the realm of thought or actions or character traits. And certainly I have what to improve in those arenas, and you are correct that one ought not to judge others by their relation to oneself.

It would be nice if one day I saw everything as this lovely puzzle you suggest, with each person adding in their particular piece, but this large view of the world has always been difficult for me. I am always much more particularistic, individualistic, character-driven rather than all-encompassing, working with a full community or plot-driven. It is therefore easier for me to attempt to understand each individual then go after things in the global sense of "everyone has a role to play."

Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

Ezzie said...

I was wondering when you'd finally write this one.

I'm with G. (Sorry G.) (On the funny part. Best? Eh. :P )

Anonymous said...

I suggest reading the book Seven Kinds of Smart.

Chana said...

Daat Y,

Thanks! I've been told to look into Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences before but had forgotten to do so. Thank you!

Rebecca said...

You underestimate yourself, my dear. :-)

Anonymous said...

One more quick comment. Thanks for YOUR thoughtful response :-) I find your words (language) very telling... for example when you are talking about "demonstrating" or "displaying your talent"... all of which have you at the center of the stage. It's not only ego-driven, it has a touch of narcissism. If you have supreme self-esteem, why would you need to demonstrate or display? There is a lot in your posts that suggests that you ARE looking for recognition, approval, even admiration for your talents. Not so far from the OTHER kind of arrogance you talked about. (BTW, there is nothing wrogn with wanting some recognition -- but it's important to recognize that desire for what it is.)

As for academic success... what's wrong with defining yourself through academic success? Why are you trying to deny that you are doing that? Going back through your post there was little (if any?) discussion about thoughts and ideas outside of a formal academic environment and your description of your frustrations seems roots in academic environments. In fact, the story of your struggles with math focused less on grasping the concepts than on "making the grade". I don't mean to be harsh, it's just really important to be honest with yourself about this stuff.

At the risk of crossing the lint... it's important to remember that it's not always about you ;-) (Ok, it mostly ISN'T about you...) Blogging distorts this, of course, because blogging is inherently a narcissistic act and so bloggers come across as self-absorbed because they write so extensively about themselves. Sometimes we learn by talking through things (i.e. blogging, monologing)... and sometimes it's helpful to LISTEN -- without thinking about how smart the other person is, or how you will respond, or what you will say to demonstrate your own intelligence in response. Sometimes it's important to simply listen to what the other person has to say. Few people in our culture have cultivated this talent -- we are all about showing and not so much about listening. It's unfortunate, because not only does it make us better people, there is sooooooooo much we can learn by just listening.
Good luck! you are obviously bright, talented, and articulate.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

Miri said...

Chana, I appreciate that you wanted to have some Jewish curriculum studies. But I really think you need to go to an Ivy League school. Get your Masters somewhere cool and impressive where you'll be surrounded by people as smart as you. You really really should.